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Western Balkans in the Line of Fire

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Western Balkans in the Line of Fire

Serbia, therefore, cannot be a pivotal state. It wants rivalry with its neighbors, not cooperation. There is even unsubstantiated, but credible information that Serbian business elites are hastily transferring their capital to foreign countries. If true, it is easy to draw a conclusion - they don’t do that because they expect stability – they do that because they expect the opposite.

Autor: Antena M

  • Viber

For Antena M by: Miljan Vešović

The Western Balkans destabilization program, implemented by Russia and Serbia, has entered another phase. Authoritarian Serbian President Vucic announced that an “All-Serbian Congregation” will be held on May 04th- 05th (Orthodox Easter and St. George’s Day). Vucic is organizing the event together with leader of Republika Srpska, Dodik, and Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Porfirius.

This is Milosevic’s playbook. Former Serbian dictator used such events to formalize and promote his position that Serbia has the right to intervene, including militarily, in any state or entity outside of Serbia where ethnic Serbs live. This with the excuse that “Serbs are in danger”. It is highly probable that Vucic’s event will serve a similar purpose.

Recently, Vucic has also ratcheted up the anti-Western rhetoric, including highly offensive and sometimes vulgar attacks against Western journalists. His choice for new Prime Minister of Serbia was also indicative. Vucic picked the pro-Russian hardliner and current Minister of Defense, Milos Vucevic, to fill that post. The other candidate for the post, the more pro-Western former Ambassador of Serbia to the US, Marko Djuric, has been passed over.

It cannot be overstated how destabilizing the Serbian meddling in its neighbors’ affairs is. This was exactly the formula that led to Balkan wars of the 1990s. Today, the threat is even stronger. Milosevic didn’t have powerful international backers for his destabilizing enterprise. Back then, his allies were figures like Lukashenka, Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein.

It is very different today. Russia has a strategic interest in destabilizing the Balkans and is actively working with Serbia in that regard. Other revisionist authoritarian powers, like China and Iran, are cheering for Vucic and Putin from the sidelines. It is clear why – every new headache for US, NATO, UK and EU is their gain.

This is precisely why Vucic’s regime is deepening its cooperation with Moscow, Tehran and Beijing – we wrote more about that here : https://www.antenam.net/stav/311977-the-sixty-four-thousand-dollar-question . And that is exactly why today’s threat from Serbia to the Balkans is more dangerous than ever.

Putin and Vucic, together with their “partners in destabilization”, Dodik and SOC, have an array of options to use to set fire to the Western Balkans. In Bosnia, Dodik is openly threatening and actively preparing the secession of Republika Srpska. The formal reason for the secession is the adoption of the UNGA resolution about the genocide in Srebrenica, which is expected on April 27th. The secession of Republika Srpska would blow up the Dayton Accords and significantly increase possibility of a new Bosnian war. The secession of a Serb-dominated entity was how the war in Bosnia started last time.

Kosovo is also in the line of fire. The concentration of Serbian military forces along the border with Kosovo has been spotted by intelligence and reconnaissance agencies of NATO allies as well as by journalists and reporters. All this might indicate that the plan to invade the North of Kosovo has already been developed.

Vucic might be calculating that NATO-led KFOR mission won’t resist the invasion, if it is limited to the Serb – populated territory in the North. His friends in NATO and EU, like Hungary, might stall the response. Also, the upcoming elections in the U.S, and possible turmoil if either Trump or Biden refuse to concede, might weaken the American reaction. That, in turn, might compel KFOR to retreat from the North and protect the Albanian – populated rest of Kosovo.

Apart from the overt invasion, Serbia can destabilize Kosovo by sending special forces (without military insignia, like Russia did in Crimea) and/or paramilitaries and terror cells to cause separatist rebellion in the North. They already tried and failed last fall (the Banjska affair, when a member of Kosovo Police was killed) – they can try again.

Any such attempt will be supported on the ground by local mob aligned with Serbian intelligence, as well as by the SOC. In Banjska, a cache of weapons intended for the rebellion was found in an SOC monastery.  

By attacking Kosovo and occupying/destabilizing the North, Serbia gains two things. If the North of Kosovo is controlled by Serbian (para)military forces, it strengthens Vucic’s hand in negotiations with Kosovo and the EU. More broadly, “hot” conflict in the North of Kosovo means further deterioration of security situation in the region. This is in line with Russia’s and Serbia’s strategic goals.

We already described the worst – case scenario of the destabilization of Montenegro here: https://www.antenam.net/stav/314142-how-does-a-civil-conflict-in-montenegro-start . However, Vucic and Putin may also use “softer” options to cause problems in Montenegro. The main problem remains the same – Montenegro’s intelligence and security apparatus is under tremendous influence of Serbian (and by extension, Russian) intelligence.

These days, the main topic in Montenegro is the arrest and indictment of former Special State Prosecutor, Katnic, and former high – ranking member of Montenegro’s Police Force, Lazovic, for alleged ties to organized crime. This article will not cover the question of guilt or innocence of Katnic or Lazovic. Just like any other Montenegrin citizen, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence and they should have their day in court. If proven guilty, they should be convicted, if proven innocent, they should be acquitted.

However, all this doesn’t mean political and security consequences of the arrests shouldn’t be analyzed. Here, two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, the pro-Russian political forces will use the Katnic’s arrest to try to further discredit the trial about the Russian-sponsored coup d’etat attempt in 2016.

Here it shouldn’t be forgotten – US, UK, NATO, and even Aleksandar Vucic himself, confirmed that the coup d’etat attempt was definitely not a fake. Montenegrin and Western intelligence services, as well as the court of first instance in Montenegro, confirmed the Russian involvement. Now the Russian goal is to force an acquittal in the new trial.

Secondly, the arrests are a powerful message to current Government of Montenegro and its Prime Minister, Spajic. As said before, Serbia exercises a significant amount of control over Montenegro’s security services. Vucic’s message to Spajic is the following – do as I say in Montenegro, or you might be investigated next.

It is clear that the Government in Montenegro fears pro-Russian and pro-Serbian political forces. This fear might explain the reluctance of Montenegro’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to publicly commit to voting for Kosovo to become a member of the Council of Europe. This even though Montenegro recognizes Kosovo as an independent state. Moreover, MFA didn’t commit to voting for UNGA resolution about the genocide in Srebrenica.  This even though Parliament of Montenegro adopted a resolution declaring Srebrenica was a genocide.

The calculation of Spajic and his ministers might be that the open conflict with their pro-Russian/pro-Serbian coalition partners should best be avoided. This because eventual instability of Government might reduce Montenegro’s chances to receive a favorable Interim Benchmark Assessment Report (IBAR) from the European Commission.

However, IBAR does not mean EU membership. That means there will be plenty of opportunities to derail MNE’s EU integration after IBAR. Russia has openly deemed EU integration process hostile to its interests. Successful integration of Montenegro into the EU is not in Vucic’s interest either. It diminishes Serbian influence in Montenegro and reflects badly upon him at home.

Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that Russia and Serbia will do everything in their power to stop Montenegro from joining EU. And destabilizing it from within is the easiest way to do it.

Even until recently reasonably stable North Macedonia is in danger. According to opinion polls, pro-Russian VMRO-DPMNE party has excellent chances to win the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections (in May 2024).

If VMRO forms the pro-Russian, pro-Serbian government, it might cause deep divisions with ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia, who are overwhelmingly pro – Western. These divisions might endanger the Ohrid Agreement and raise chances for another inter – ethnic strife in North Macedonia.

Recently there has been a heightened awareness in the West about the possibility of new Balkans conflict. Political, diplomatic, security and expert circles in both Washington and European capitals are increasingly open in considering the possibility. The threat was also recognized in the highly reliable “Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” made public by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in March 2024.

However, the misconception that Vucic’s Serbia might still be a partner of the West still persists. This misconception stems from the overreliance of US and EU foreign policy makers on so-called “pivotal states” doctrine. In theory it works like this – a “pivotal state” in a region is chosen based on its political, economic, military and cultural power. Then the effort is made to push that state towards partnership with the West. The “pivotal state”, being the most powerful and a partner of the West, in turn “drags” all neighboring states towards partnership and/or integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures as well.

Therefore, every perceived “friendly” gesture from Serbia towards the West is hyperbolized and taken as “evidence that Serbia is moving away from Russia”. The current such story is the Serbian commission of fighter jets from France. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Russia had commissioned warships from France not long before it annexed Crimea.

Moreover, the discussion about where the jets are coming from is obscuring the more important issue – why Serbia wants them in the first place. It is surrounded by either EU/NATO member states or countries that absolutely don’t have enough capabilities to militarily endanger Serbian territory. The neighboring country with which Serbia has the worst relations, Kosovo still doesn’t have a real military. Kosovo Security Force is still in the process of transformation to Kosovo Armed Forces.

The procurement of fighter jets is, however, only a small part of a years – long process of Serbian rearmament. It is very hard to buy Vucic’s explanation that Serbia is arming itself to the teeth in order to be a “proud nation again”. You don’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sophisticated weaponry to feel good. You procure arms because you want to prepare for war and use them.

Serbia, therefore, cannot be a pivotal state. It wants rivalry with its neighbors, not cooperation. There is even unsubstantiated, but credible information that Serbian business elites are hastily transferring their capital to foreign countries. If true, it is easy to draw a conclusion - they don’t do that because they expect stability – they do that because they expect the opposite.

Serbia’s political, business and cultural elites, its church, its military and security apparatus are all anti-Western. And so is the majority of the electorate. Serbian regime, elites and security system view their anti-Westernism as integral to their political survival. Serbia is a regional revisionist power that has the backing of great revisionist powers – Russia, China and Iran. Therefore, Serbia as it is now can only drag the region away from the West, not towards it.

 

Therefore, a switch from US, EU and NATO from cooperation to containment vis a vis Serbia would be very beneficial for regional stability. Clear red lines should be set, especially concerning the possible attack on Kosovo or illegal dissolution of Bosnia. The consequences of crossing these red lines should be spelled out to Vucic in no uncertain terms.

Moreover, US and European allies should cooperate to diminish Russian and Serbian influence in the region. It is true – that means costs and also a complex diplomatic, intelligence and influence operation and more Western involvement in the Balkans than the West currently wants. However, it is better than the alternative – which is the further deterioration of security situation until the conflict breaks out.

Short – term, Serbia is beyond help. It will remain so as long as the above – described system and elites are in place. However, regional isolation of Serbia and successful integration of other regional candidates into the EU is a necessary step towards Serbia’s democratization. Milosevic fell only after malign influence of his regime was diminished in all the neighboring countries.

US and EU should also indicate clearly which political leaders/forces in the region can, and which can’t be their partners. True, there will be criticism that this is meddling in internal affairs or even “colonialism”. However, that is easily debunked. Western countries, just like any others, have the right to choose their political partners. Making that choice public is not colonialism – it is the help to the electorate in the region to make a more informed choice.

It is also the help to regional leaders that have already committed to EU/NATO integration – it will be easier for them to pick sides and they will know what they can do if they want to achieve that goal, and what they can’t.

From their side, regional leaders should finally show the political courage to promote and defend the Western values. Moreover, they should do so with deeds, not just words.

Let’s take Montenegro as an example. For starters, the Government and its Prime Minister should immediately publicly commit to voting for membership of Kosovo in CoE; co – sponsoring and voting for the UNGA resolution about genocide in Srebrenica (for this, they have a strong support from the Montenegrin civil sector) and make a statement that they perceive the presence of any Montenegrin public official in the upcoming “All-Serbian Congregation” to be contrary to Montenegrin national interests and foreign policy goals.

And then we can discuss further about IBAR and everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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